TV UK, 28 July
The New Al-Qaeda: more than a 'nightmare'?
The New Al-Qaeda began on Monday by setting itself against the idea that the global terrorist threat is no more than a nightmare dreamt up by cynical politicians. This was a none-to-subtle reference to The Power of Nightmares, another BBC series broadcast last year (1).
The new three-part series is by BBC journalist Peter Taylor, previously known for his work on the conflict in Ireland. For The New Al-Qaeda he interviewed an impressive range of experts, including US intelligence people and al-Qaeda sympathisers, to gain an understanding of the new terrorist threat. Such was the influence of last year’s series by Adam Curtis, however, that Taylor’s producer Sandy Smith has described it as having taken on a life of its own, casting a shadow over the making of the new series (2). While, as Smith points out, Curtis always said there would be an attack and his political argument is not refuted by the London bombings, a simplified version of that argument – that the terrorist threat was an invention of neocons – had become conventional wisdom in certain quarters, not least within parts of the BBC.
Clearly, while there is little evidence for the existence of a global terrorist organisation, terrorism is a real phenomenon. The opening episode of The New Al-Qaeda focused on the power of the internet as a recruiting and organising tool for terrorists. The idea is that al-Qaeda has gone from being a small tightly-knit organisation before the war in Afghanistan to a global brand name under which numerous local outfits can operate.
That the London bombers were young British Muslims rather than foreign jihadists, then, would seem to support this theory. But Taylor made much of the propaganda value of videos showing attacks on coalition forces in Iraq, linking ‘the new al-Qaeda’ with the insurgence there. It has to be said, of course, that the existence of websites is not evidence of a significant audience, and the programme itself will likely boost the traffic with morbidly curious surfers.
What Taylor fails to do is to explain why such propaganda should resonate with young Muslims in the West anyway. Tacked on to the end of the first episode came the un-argued assertion from a former CIA man that basically terrorism is all about Palestine. Despite the hardline ‘realist’ approach, then, The New Al-Qaeda ends up endorsing a key plank in the conventional left-liberal critique of the war on terror: the idea that the ‘underlying causes of terrorism’ are to do with global political injustice. Significantly, this is something that Adam Curtis’ programme went beyond.
What was really interesting about The Power of Nightmares was its analysis of the intellectual parallels between the ‘neocons’ and the Wahhabist forebears of today’s terrorists, most pertinently their distance from the people they claim to represent, the lack of political legitimacy that characterises both ‘sides’ of the war on terror. While next week’s episode of Taylor’s new series, which discusses the Madrid bombings, makes much of the hardship of life in north Africa, the three bombers profiled were all radicalised in Madrid, where they led Western lifestyles as a playboy drug dealer, an estate agent (holding the office monthly sales record), and a mobile phone dealer. Far from fighting for their compatriots in Morocco, they were indulging their own eccentric concerns when they bombed the Atocha station.
As was implied in The Power of Nightmares, and has been argued extensively on spiked, this surely points to a crisis within Western societies rather than any kind of geopolitical ‘blowback’. It is unfortunate, then, that this aspect is not pursued, and instead the final episode of The New Al-Qaeda is about Pakistan. Undoubtedly, the situation in Pakistan is interesting, though if it is indeed the ‘frontline’ as the episode’s title has it, it is a frontline by proxy. Again, Taylor fails to ask why the young militants haranguing President ‘Busharraf’ for supporting the USA have distinctly English accents.
Musharraf himself comes across as a likeable chap, all things considered, sitting in his armoured car showing off his Glock pistol. ‘Austrian. Best in the world.’ But the overwhelming sense one gets is that this is a man unwittingly caught up in someone else’s war.
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